Single sky wins support amid airline fears over ETS

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Countries would have to surrender sovereignty over their national airspace in favour of a European air-traffic management system by 2012, according to proposals presented in Brussels yesterday. While many are reluctant, concerns relating to parallel plans to include airlines in the EU’s emissions trading scheme could get the ball rolling.

Lack of progress so far 

Conceding that the Single European Sky regulation adopted four years ago had “not delivered the expected results in some important areas,” the Commission has put forward a second package of legislation to overcome the “numerous hurdles” encountered when trying to integrate European airspace. 

The main additions to the previous package will be the introduction of binding performance targets for air navigation service providers and a target date of 2012 for member states to establish cross-border cooperation among themselves through “functional airspace blocks” (FABs). 

Currently, aircraft are forced to zig-zag between 27 different airspaces – each serviced by a different air navigation service provider on the basis of different rules and requirements. This makes the average flight roughly 49km longer than it need be and pushes up the costs for airline operators to almost double those faced in the United States for example, where the airspace is one, pointed out the EU’s new transport commissioner, the Italian Antonio Tajani. A simplified sky with eight or nine airspaces, based on the mutual agreement of countries, would help save time, fuel, money and CO2, the Commission points out. 

Under the current proposal, Eurocontrol (the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation) would gradually take over the management of the EU’s air traffic management network from member states. It would also be charged with defining and evaluating performance targets for the single sky. 

National resistance still an issue 

The Commission had originally intended to be more forceful in its first raft of measures to create a Single European Sky. But it was forced to soften its plans due to member states’ reluctance to give up control over their airspace, open up areas restricted for military use or put national civil control centres out of business. Tajani acknowledged that this remains an issue and that the most difficult part will not be drafting the legislation but implementing it. 

A business-friendly approach amid high oil prices 

Nevertheless, the commissioner said resistance is softening. This is notably because the single sky option now seems a more business-friendly approach than the parallel one being pushed for by the Commission – to include airlines in the EU’s emissions trading scheme. 

Indeed, while the SES is expected to cut costs for airlines by €2-3 billion annually, airlines are claiming that the ETS, combined with today’s soaring oil prices, could put many of them out of business. 

Safer skies 

The new package also aims to transfer increased competences to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). While the agency currently deals only with the certification and safety of airlines, Brussels wants to hand over responsibilities for aerodromes, air traffic management and air navigation services to the agency so as to counter the rising safety risks related to the increased operational pressure as traffic rises. 

"Look at the flight paths - it's ridiculous," said European Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani, explaining: "The fact is the sky remains broken up into 27 different skies […] The consequence is that aircraft on average fly 49km more than is strictly necessary. Today we spend 10 to 15 minutes too long in our planes." 

While acknowledging that "some air forces in some member states have doubts about collaborating," he stressed that "it's a question of overcoming the idea that national sovereignty prevails over airspace". 

Association of European Airlines (AEA)  Secretary General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus said the "re-energising of the Single Sky process could not come at a more crucial time for the European airline industry". 

"Rocketing fuel prices are driving up airline costs at an alarming rate […] We cannot continue to be burdened with the huge costs of en-route inefficiency, needlessly burning fuel which is three times as expensive as it was two years ago," he stressed. 

Peter Hartman, chairman of the AEA and president KLM Royal Dutch Airlines agreed that a Single European Sky would "eventually benefit the passengers with more efficient flights, the environment with less emissions, and the airlines with reduced costs," in contrast with the Emissions Trading Scheme model for aviation, which he claims the current "political discussion" is turning into "a punitive weapon to batter the European aviation industry". 

The AEA nevertheless cautioned that the real test for the SES would be in the implementation. "The reason we have a second package," he said, "is because the first, which saw the light of day four years ago, has stalled through reluctance on the part of EU member states to pool their sovereign airspaces as a shared European resource – a kind of Schengen for the sky". 

The International Air Carrier Association (IACA) said the package was "long overdue", saying "there should be no excuses from member states now for not implementing this package quickly as the benefits are clear to see". The warm welcome contrasts strongly with a parallel statement issued the same day on the EU's plans to include airlines in the ETS. 

"We've already had 24 airline bankruptcies this year and we expect more. What more evidence do policymakers need to see that the aviation industry is in severe financial trouble? A punitive ETS scheme on top of this would be the final straw and add insult to injury," said IACA President Christoph Mueller. "Let there be no doubt that any further financial pressure would bring about more bankruptcies and prevent airlines from investing in new technology and more efficient fleets." 

The European Airports' Association, ACI Europe, also welcomed the package as "a first step towards the recognition that ATM and airport capacity issues need to be jointly addressed within the context of the looming airport capacity crunch". 

ACI Europe President Yiannis Paraschis commented: "It's about time that the EU aligned ATM and airport capacity objectives. For years, the Single European Sky project has been developed in splendid isolation with a focus on doubling capacity in the sky, without meaningful consideration for what happens on the ground. If airport capacity is not addressed at EU level, the Single European Sky will fail and with it, European aviation. We need environmentally-robust capacity on the ground, to compliment what is being created in the air." 

But green NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Transport and Environment (T&E) continued to push for a strong EU ETS to show "a clear signal of the EU's ambition to tackle climate change," saying they were highly disappointed with proposals to delay the scheme.

Despite a series of regulations, adopted in March 2004, aimed at creating a 'Single European Sky' (SES) by reforming the current Air Traffic Management system, the European sky remains broadly divided into 27 different pieces of airspace under the control of national governments. 

This fragmentation forces airlines to cut across numerous air-traffic control systems in order to get to their destination, making them fly extra kilometres and assume holding patterns before being able to land in Europe's busy airports. 

Airlines' activities are currently responsible for roughly 3% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions but air traffic is expected to double by 2020, with wide repercussions in terms of additional traffic jams, delays, pollution and safety risks. 

To address the growing environmental footprint of aviation, the Commission also made legislative proposals last year to include the sector in the EU's emissions trading scheme (see LinksDossier on Aviation & ETS).

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